INTERVIEW with COLUMBAN SISTER MARY FINTAN RYAN as she “signs off” after 50 years of missionary involvement in Hong Kong, China
This interview is based on one conducted originally in Chinese by Ada Chau for the Kung Kao Po (Chinese version of RC Diocese of Hong Kong Diocesan newspaper the Sunday Examiner)
AC (Ada Chau); SrFintan (Sr Mary Fintan)
AC: Sister, is it really true that you are retiring from ministry in Hong Kong?
Sr Fintan: Yes, Ada, after a fifty-year span of missionary service spent happily here in Hong Kong, first as nurse and then as pastoral care provider, I am returning to my homeland, Ireland. I had announced my retirement some weeks before the Chancery Notice appeared in November last year regarding Pastoral and other Diocesan Personnel who had reached their 75th year!
AC: So when did you first come to Hong Kong? And, how did you travel?
Sr Fintan: I arrived in Hong Kong on 7 February 1963 having left Ireland in early December 1962! My companions and I travelled by boat, a journey of almost three months. Actually, I was initially assigned to our mission in Burma, but had to wait in Hong Kong for my visa. Meanwhile things changed for the worst in Burma and so I was then assigned to Hong Kong.
My first ministry was that of nurse in Ruttonjee Hospital. At that time very many Chinese refugees were arriving daily into the colony, many of whom had TB. The death rate was very high. It was always very hard for patients to accept the fact that they had been infected, and one had to take time to listen patiently to their concerns.
The young Sister Fintan in Hong Kong in the 1960’s
The vetran missionary Sister Fintan
AC: How did you and the rest of the Sisters deal with such a difficult situation?
Sr Fintan: We were blessed early on to have two of our own highly trained Sister-doctors who, with other medical personnel, worked tirelessly to find a cure for TB. Treatment was even given free and patients’ fears were lessened when they realized that TB was no longer a non-curable disease.
AC: You would have had many memorable experiences during these years but some must stand out for you as special.
Sr Fintan: Yes, indeed. I recall a particular child who had many serious illnesses during his 5-year life span. He could not walk, could not eat, and had to rely on the oxygen to breathe; nevertheless, he lived happier than everyone around him. I never saw him cry. Though his life was short, it touched everybody in the hospital, including the doctors and nurses.
I also remember how a young woman in Bradbury Hospice who was very ill and dying, endured her suffering with great patience. One day, the young patient confided to me that she had seen a lady in a white garment standing at the end of her bed holding out Jesus to her. The young woman’s face was radiant as she related the experience and then she declared, “I am not afraid to die now. I know Jesus is coming for me.” And God did take her home.
The witness of the intense faith of this young woman was a lesson that death can never conquer those who are living with peace and faith.
AC: Recently you contributed to a book on Pastoral Care published by the Diocesan Commission for Hospital Pastoral Care? What aspect of the work did you focus on?
Sr Fintan: I shared my experience of visiting children in the Cancer Centre and childrens’ wards, something that has always been special for me. It was the courage, faithful- ness and faith of the parents that inspired me as they watched their loved ones go through long periods of treatment. I will never forget how painful it was for parents watching their little darlings take their last breath. Words are inadequate at a time like this. I treasure the moments when I stayed by the bedside to give them my support and prayers. I still feel their presence each day, remembering the lovely smiles and greetings while going about my daily visits.
I can truly say that I have often seen the seeds sown many years ago in the schools bearing fruit and blossoming when people are ill.
AC: Obviously, Sister Fintan, your nursing career had two very distinct phases.
Sr Fintan Yes, indeed. I had been a nurse for thirty years before starting pastoral care work in the hospital. When I first came to Hong Kong and started nursing in Ruttonjee I could not speak Cantonese at all. And our approach was that we would not evangelise while taking care of the patients. We would just let them know we were with them, we were there for them.
I remember one elderly patient who had TB stopping me one day. He looked at me and asked, “Why did you leave your hometown and come such a long way to serve us?” I answered simply that it was because of Jesus. He then asked me to tell him more about Jesus and the Gospel, and after some time he asked to be baptized.
This was another lesson learned: Different languages are not the real barrier. The most important thing is to treat and accompany patients with the utmost care and respect.
Sr Fintan with her Hospital Pastoral Care colleagues…
…and Mr John Lee Hon Ying (Diocesan Commission for HPC) and Ms Fung a former Commission member
AC: Sister, tell me a little about your family background.
Sr Fintan I was born into an Irish Catholic family and we prayed the rosary every night. I was educated in Catholic schools from the age of four and the calling to spread the gospel to others came when I was studying in high school. After finishing my high school studies, I told my family that I wanted very much to go as a missionary to China. And so, I entered the Columban Sisters’ Novitiate. After 1st Profession of Vows I did a four-year nursing course including qualifying as a midwife.
AC: And your ‘second career’, the Ministry of Pastoral Care? When did you move into that field?
Sr Fintan: Around the time of the redevelopment of Ruttonjee Hospital where I had been nursing for 30 years, many of us were becoming more aware of the importance of the mental health of the patients and their family members. So in 1991 I went back to Ireland and underwent further training, taking the Clinical Pastoral Education Program. The following year, upon my return to Hong Kong, I started my pastoral care work in Prince of Wales Hospital. At that time the Pastoral Care organisation was still being done on a very small scale here. But now, thankfully, its expansion has been very fast with many wonderful teams of pastoral care workers and volunteers attached to different hospitals across the territory.
AC: Did you find the transition from nursing to pastoral care ministry?
Sr Fintan: I believe that my path to pastoral care was a calling from God, and I advise those who want to take part in this field that they must have commitment. Patients know whether you are sincere with them or not when you are taking caring of them!
AC: Thank you so much, Sister Fintan, for sharing from your rich experiences. And now you have the last word:
Sr Fintan: I want to express my heartfelt thanks for the patients I have met. They taught me a lot, but were also a source of blessings for me. To me, what I have been doing these many years in Hong Kong was not a job. I enjoyed every minute of it. Each person I have met or worked with has been a blessing in my life. And as I go back to Ireland I’ll surely remember all these blessings and precious moments.”
(Source : Kung Kao Po)
A silk scroll of Our Lady of China was presented to Sr Fintan by her HPC colleagues. Lower rt of photo, Columban Sister Pat Zandrews, Boston, USA, who has conducted several Clinical Pastoral Training Courses for the Hong Kong RC Diocesan HPC.
Off-duty, Sister Fintan likes nothing better than to take time to tend the small but precious garden and to nurture and admire the flowers. “Each person I have met or worked with has been a blessing in my life. And as I go back to Ireland I’ll surely remember all these blessings and precious moments.”
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